September 1, 2011

The Thane of Chelsea: Sleep No More Takes Over the McKittrick Hotel

For most of this year, New York’s theater world has been abuzz with chatter concerning a series of interiors in three Chelsea warehouses collectively rechristened the McKittrick Hotel. The 100,000 square feet inside is the setting for Sleep No More, a near-wordless, pitch-noir Macbeth adaptation in which the buildings themselves are the stars—despite astonishing body-and-soul performances by a 30-strong cast organized by the London theater group Punchdrunk.

Founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk is the game-changing pioneer of “immersive” theater, in which audiences are decanted into a set to wander at will and experience close encounters with intersecting plots. It’s sensory overload for maximum emotional impact, and Sleep No More’s gorgeous rooms, crammed with multilayered detail, may just represent the ultimate expression of the interior designer’s art: narrative decor.

“The way we build it, every single space has a story to tell. The story is inside the walls,” Barrett says. “Even if there were no performers, I would hope the show would stand up.”

Indeed, audience members often abandon the actors in favor of explor­ing. A vital feature of the experience is the license to rummage, every interiors addict’s dream come true. (Well, mine at least.) Interfering with the decor is intensely rewarding because of the insane degree of the detailing.

Detail is the department of design associate Beatrice Minns. “We sit in?the space and try to make it real—go into the characters’ persona and think about how they would have felt,” she says. “There’s so much paranoia around the Macbeth characters, so we researched different types of voodoo-esque things.” Resulting from that research, myriad minutia conceal meaning upon meaning: crosses made of cutlery planted in piles of?salt, parcels containing ticking clocks, locks of hair pinned on cards, session notes by Lady Macbeth’s psychiatrist, in script redolent of the 1930’s and ’40’s, like most of the furnishings. As Barrett declares, “A space without detail is a character without depth.”

Then there are the dead animals. Lots. “We always have taxidermy in our shows,” Livi Vaughan says with a laugh. She’s the design associate responsible for the macro perspective versus Minns’s micro. 

The scent of cured skins provides an extra sensory layer in some spaces; others are redolent of caramel, pine, or cardboard. Some are freezing, some sweaty. “One important contrast is between the Macduffs and the Macbeths,” Vaughan explains. “Lady Macbeth’s bedroom is stark, linear, grand, with huge windows. The Macduffs’ place is very domestic and cozy, softer, with muted colors.” An existing one-way mirror in the Macduffs’ apartment lends itself to a chilling twist. Look into the glass, and a “reflection” of the children’s room appears—identical but for a suddenly blood-soaked bed.

Interestingly, Barrett says that a building’s atmosphere dictates dramatic action and set design, not vice versa: “The first time I walk around a location is when the whole show gets conceived. A building tells you its story. Where I feel threatened. Where I feel safe.” After his walk-through, Punchdrunk constructs his vision, literally—knocking down walls, building others, installing a staircase for audience flow. In one Chelsea warehouse space, the team created a street of shops as “a long shot,” he says. “You need moments to stretch out.”

Punchdrunk members talk the language of film. Long shots, wide shots, close-ups. That’s how Barrett and choreographer Maxine Doyle see and direct. And it was film that sparked Sleep No More in the first place, specifically Bernard Hermann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. (McKittrick Hotel—get it?) “The dense texture and timbre, the rich enveloping quality. Playing the music, I’d see a landscape, a femme fatale, a man obsessed with power. I’d imagine a world where they met.”

Sleep No More interiors are immeasurably heightened by what sound designer Stephen Dobbie did with the Vertigo score in addition to 1930’s and ’40’s popular tunes, some bits from Psycho, and even—in a memorable witchy orgy scene—a spot of techno, all spliced into 16 separate tracks. “My goal is to have sound be in every corner, nondirectionally,” Dobbie says. “It surrounds you like wallpaper. Or a padded cell.”

Lighting designer Euan Maybank plies his trade to similar effect. “The lighting leads you around with a cold, clammy hand,” Barrett says. “It’s actually designed to create darkness, not illumination.” In fact, to enter the McKittrick, you must negotiate a twisting passageway dark enough to require­ holding hands. A few audience members never get past it.

Among those who continue, wear­ing the required white carnival masks, an intrepid few are pulled by a cast member into a hidden room, and a?mere eight people per night are taken to an entire hidden level above, 15,000 square feet lavished with extreme attention for a mere fraction of the audience. “If you get to see the sixth floor, it skews everything,” Barrett says. I’m sure that’s absolutely true. 


Lillian Clements; Mark Collett; Katherine Fleming; Ben Folstein; Morgan Fox; Zoe Franklin; Becky Holmes; Tom Ibbitson; Claire Karoff; Alexandra McConnell-Trivelli; Colin Nightingale; Lucia Rosenwald; Austin R. Smith; Liam Smith; Bradley Thompson; Mara Westerling; Jonathan Zencheck: Punchdrunk. Emursive: Executive Producer. SBLM Architects: Architect of Record. Blair Mielnik; Daedelus Design & Production: Scenic Consultants. Graham Johnson: Sound Consultant. Turning Star: Fireproofing Contractor. Continental Group: General Contractor. 

Recent Projects